The success of social living can be explained, in part, by a group's ability to execute collective behaviours unachievable by solitary individuals. However, groups vary in their ability to execute these complex behaviours, often because they vary in their phenotypic composition. Group membership changes over time due to mortality or emigration, potentially leaving groups vulnerable to ecological challenges in times of flux. In some societies, the loss of important individuals (e.g. leaders, elites and queens) may have an especially detrimental effect on groups’ ability to deal with these challenges. Here, we test whether the removal of queens in colonies of the acorn ant Temnothorax curvispinosus alters their ability to execute important collective behaviours and survive outbreaks of a generalist entomopathogen. We employed a split-colony design where one half of a colony was maintained with its queen, while the other half was separated from the queen. We then tested these subcolonies’ performance in a series of collective behaviour assays and finally exposed colonies to the entomopathogenic fungus Metarhizium robertsii by exposing two individuals from the colony and then sealing them back into the nest. We found that queenright subcolonies outperformed their queenless counterparts in nearly all collective behaviours. Queenless subcolonies were also more vulnerable to mortality from disease. However, queenless groups that displayed more interactions with brood experienced greater survivorship, a trend not present in queenright subcolonies. Queenless subcolonies that engage in more brood interactions may have had more resources available to cope with two physiological challenges (ovarian development after queen loss and immune activation after pathogen exposure). Our results indicate that queen presence can play an integral role in colony behaviour, survivorship and their relationship. They also suggest that interactions between workers and brood are integral to colonies survival. Overall, a social group's history of social reorganization may have strong consequences on their collective behaviours and their vulnerability to disease outbreaks.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
- Animal Science and Zoology